Monday, 24 June 2013

Of Chickens And Eggs

We've all seen it. For some reason Creationists seem to think they've come up with an unanswerable question for Evolutionists, apparently under the impression that a single unanswerable question will totally destroy any science regardless of whether it has any relevance to the field of science in question. The whole point of scientific debate, from a fundamentalist Creationist point of view, is to shut down debate, not to elicit information and enhance understanding.

And of course, as we all know, since we are all too stupid to spot a blatant false dichotomy when one is staring us in the face, if you can destroy science then either Islam or Christianity, or whatever other primitive superstition is being promoted, will automatically become the only possible answer, and then they will have won.

The 'devastating killer question' is of course, 'Which came first; the chicken or the egg?'

I think the 'reasoning' may be that there needs to be a chicken to lay a chicken's egg, and there needs to be a chicken's egg to be a chicken, ergo, neither chickens nor eggs could have evolved from an earlier ancestor.

Given the simplistic parody of evolution that Creationists have either been fooled with or are trying to fool other people with, this makes a sort of sense. In the Creationist parody, one ancestor species is supposed to suddenly mutate into another, or more precisely one individual is supposed to mutate and give rise to an entirely new species. Even more idiotically, and a notion that gives rise to the 'Why are there still monkey?' question, all members of a species are supposed to wake up one morning to find they've mutated into something else.

In fact of course, evolution is nothing of the sort, and no rational, honest scientist has ever to my knowledge proposed that evolution proceeds that way. Firstly, we need to draw a distinction which is normally overlooked by Creationists - that between evolution and the Theory of Evolution. The former is a fact which can be observed. The latter is a scientific theory which explains that fact.

As Dan Dennett explained in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (see What a Tangled Web Creationists Weave) there is no standard definiton of 'species' and whether or not speciation can be said to have happened is something which keeps taxonomists employed, so any definition of evolution can't be restricted to an event which gives rise to a new species. Evolution is about how species change and diversify over time. The more-or-less standard definition of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is:

Biological evolution ... is change in the properties of populations of organisms that transcend the lifetime of a single individual. The ontogeny of an individual is not considered evolution; individual organisms do not evolve. The changes in populations that are considered evolutionary are those that are inheritable via the genetic material from one generation to the next. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions. [My emphasis]

Douglas J. Futuyma, Evolutionary Biology, Sinauer Associates 1986

Note that evolution does not take place in individuals but in populations; more precisely in the population gene-pool. It is not confined to the production of one or more daughter species from a parent species, though that could be a consequence of it.

How does this relate to chickens and eggs?

Chickens and eggs are merely different phases of the same thing. Chickens can be seen as the egg's way of making more eggs with just as much biological validity as seeing eggs as a chicken's way of making more chickens. One might as well ask if evolution happens in the embryo or the juvenile rather than the adult. It doesn't happen in any of them. It happens in the gene-pool. Change is gradual (with a few notable exceptions where speciation occurs by stable hybridization). Chickens of both egg and adult phase gradually evolved over a very long time from earlier birds and they from feathered dinosaurs. There never was a first chicken or first chicken's egg.

Creationist pseudo-scientists habitually feed these sorts of questions to their credulous audience to give them something to shut down enquiry and so avoid learning - guess why. It's the same sort of question as, "Were you there?"; designed to make their witless victims think they've scored an easy point whilst avoiding learning anything which might help them understand the world. It feeds their desire for smug self-satisfaction without all that bother of learning. It's designed to appeal to the person who wants to believe that ignorance is a shortcut to understanding and that personal incredulity is the best measure of reality.

In fact, asking these questions merely betrays the scientific illiteracy of the questioner - not that making their victims looks stupid has ever been any concern of the sociopathic charlatans and frauds who parasitise them for a living.

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  1. An interesting article on this subject if you haven't already seen it

  2. I've never considered this an unanswerable question. The egg came first. From it hatched something that today would be accepted as a chicken. It was laid by something that would not today be accepted as a chicken.

  3. This kind of question is one that really irks me, after all does it really matter which came first as one can breed they other (like you pointed out). After all it does not prove the egg was designed, all it shows is that creationists dont know which came first either. They have yet to show their designer who can tell them which came first. So the argument is an invalid one, as they don’t have an answer either.

  4. This reminds me of the atheist's worst nightmare: The banana! You know, why does it fit in my hand so well if God didn't invent it for that purpose?

    Don't have an answer for that, do you?

    I'll go tell Ray Comfort...


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